|Kode9: Memories of the present passed...
Ubiquitous yet mysterious: It's unclear how the Hyperdub boss pulls it off, which is why RA tracked Steve Goodman down in advance of his gig at this year's Springfestival to uncover more about his multi-faceted career.
Everything is still. We're sitting on discerning chairs in an institutional room listening to a DJ/producer hold forth on some of the secret knowledge he's accrued. There's a crowd gathered expressly for the occasion. The sun hasn't set yet; it's early evening. Each of those assembled pays attention politely, astutely, academically. Clerical sounds flit about in the distance, aural cues of people distracted at work, of duties getting done. There are no turntables in sight. The only speakers in the room are the kind that ferry the sound of a microphone snapped to a podium. It's a regular workaday day, with a sensible schedule adhered to and a DJ/producer in place, talking about what he thinks about when he thinks about sound.
Could this DJ/producer be any other than Kode9?
The answer, of course, is yes. In fact, it could be just about anyone these days, when it's not the least bit unusual to hear our favorite underground operatives talk in edifying terms about what makes them so. We're awash in expository interviews, annotated playlists, dashed-off Q&As with blogs, roots-revealing podcast mixes, still more interviews, slickly produced video chats. Very few artists of note these days could be said to be under-documented. Mystery is rare.
Which makes Kode9 an all the more curious case. He's seemingly everywhere right now, in distinctly different roles: playing DJ gigs as Kode9 on different continents, giving lectures as Steve Goodman about his thoughtful and dense new book Sonic Warfare, talking in both guises about what has made his label Hyperdub one of electronic music's premiere imprints...
And yet, Kode9 (a figurehead with (rare) ubiquity and (rarer still) a strong ideological bearing) is somehow also highly, hauntingly elusive.
How else would we want him to be?
Syncing up with Kode9 for an interview proved complicated in ways that seem, in retrospect, both fittingly significant and absent of any real significance. He wanted at first to answer questions over e-mail. Reasonable enough, given his facility as a writer and what any of us would have to accept as a sensible unease with being misquoted or misrepresented. (Reasonable enough, too, that a journalist would signal reluctance to conducting e-mail interviews by policy, for all their potential pitfalls of dryness and so on.)
So that arrangement, agreed upon by both sides, brought about back-and-forth like this:
When was the first time, or a memory of an early time, when you were gripped by a strange or alien sound, musical or not, as a child?
Are you testing whether I'm a replicant? I don't have strong memories of childhood, but I do remember a recurrent nightmare when I was a child in which I'd be standing in front of an articulated truck that was speeding past me. It was centimetres in front of my face and making an ultra-loud roaring sound that would make me wake up shouting and screaming... Maybe that was a memory implant though.
How early did you start to prioritize confusion or surprise in what you listen to? Was there any kind of extra-musical catalyst to your interest in sound at the start?
I don't have a memory implant that stretches back that far. We don't want to dwell on the past, though, do we?
How did that figure into you starting to make music, the impulse and the practice, at the beginning?
Computer says no.
And so on. He didn't want to get personal, and he had little patience for the past. That seemed about right for someone who got his start as part of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, a collective of thinkers who made academic inroads in the '90s with futuristic ideas extrapolating on rave and critical theory. (See also Kodwo Eshun, author of the essential book More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction.) And it seemed right for a DJ/producer whose working aesthetic, even as it has expanded greatly, registers as cagey, pent-up, paranoid. (See the Kode9 album Memories of the Future and the useful label primer 5: Five Years of Hyperdub.)
And then, by contrast, he proved a bit more forthcoming in relation to questions less specific to himself...
The aesthetic you traffic in tends to be dark, interested in dread. Does that kind of taste wander into interests of yours outside of music? (Movies, books, whatever.)
I don't think it's all dark. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it's a bit melancholy, sometimes it's just a bit weird or warped, not necessarily dark but just a bit beautiful. Whichever, I do like music that seeps in from the cracks of reality like a sweet-smelling but noxious gas. It's the same with books and films: I like it when they rotate the world to an odd angle, and suddenly everything smears into place.
There is a great sample in the first Cannibal Ox album: "It's a cold world out there, sometimes I get a little frosty myself."
Kode9 is not the least bit frosty in person, or at least he wasn't while all groggy-eyed the afternoon after a gig opening for Flying Lotus in New York. He'd played a DJ set the night before to a large but largely indifferent crowd (there more for FlyLo's glitchy hip-hop than Kode9's kind of polyglot dance music, and geared for a "concert" more than a club experience, to be sure). He'd agreed to meet up after a few distended attempts at e-mail follow-up failed to take hold, owing, as he wrote apologetically, to "a couple of months of 'head in a vice'-type existence."
He was quiet, reserved, a bit diffident, at odds with the aesthetically assured maker of music so often brutal and decisive, and certainly at odds with the writer of cerebral tracts so flush with future-shock energy and a hard rhetorical edge. He was between guises, tired from his Kode9 set the night before and gearing up for a Steve Goodman lecture later that day. And so he talked, measuredly and in modest and earthy terms, about his lot.
You seem superhumanly busy these days, in very different roles. Are you having a hard time juggling?
It's a struggle. It's really been cranking up for the past few years. I teach, and the minute I stop teaching I go away for gigs, then go back and grade papers. Running a label is another thing. And the book... It's difficult: I always fear I'm spinning all these plates and they'll start falling and smashing. I'm constantly paranoid that I'm doing so many things that I'm not doing any of them well. But that's just my everyday neurosis. To finish the book I just had to withdraw from everything for six months. I probably need to do that a bit more.
How do you feel the day after you DJ? What keeps you doing it?
Clearly it's not just crowd response, after last night! I just love DJing. I love the feeling of being in the mix in a dark room. That's it, really. Of course it helps if there's a crowd there with you, enjoying it. Everything else around DJing is boring. Traveling is great, but it's not as if traveling to DJ is the same as traveling. It's really just that feeling of being very intimate with the music that keeps me going.
Interviews with artists used to be comparatively rare, whereas now there's a near-constant presence of artists talking about their work in different ways. Growing up with rave, when everything had more of a sense of anonymity and mystery, is this something that concerns you?
I agree that this little world of electronic music is more overexposed than it ever has been, with podcasts and web interviews... It seems like the whole thing is moving much faster than ever, even though there's not necessarily more going on that's interesting. You get the feeling, reading a lot of online music press, that every week there's a massive groundbreaking phase-shift in music culture. Clearly that's bullshit. But that's the impression you get.
There are a lot of upsides to music-blogging. It moves faster than magazines, generally the writing is better. But the downside is that it just amplifies and accelerates what was always there in any writing about fashions or fads or something that's constantly changing, which is the cool-hunting aspect of online music writing. This sometimes leads to the sense that music that hasn't even been created yet is already outdated in some bizarre, twisted way. Like things that haven't even been created yet can be last week's news.
"Hyperdub has been getting positive press
for the past year or so. It makes me
feel uncomfortable because I
don't believe most of it."
Do you think that can be a catalyst as much as a detriment?
Definitely. It can be a catalyst in that it reminds you of the value of secrecy, of being off the radar, anonymous. Of moving slowly, when you're ready.
Is that something you actively miss yourself?
I'm constantly swinging in and out of these modes of finding myself running around like a headless chicken and doing things according to other people's deadlines, and then just disappearing from the face of the planet.
As someone who writes and talks about music very well, how do you feel about the fact that so many people are writing and talking about music more than ever before? Do you think the rhetoric surrounding music has progressed or changed?
I think it's good that people are talking about music more. But unfortunately I find the discourse about music seems to be polarized generally between "It's all shit and used to be much better" and "everything's amazing, everything's brilliant." Like when everything's completely uncritical, when there's no distinction between a press release and journalism.
Hyperdub has been getting positive press for the past year or so, and it does make me feel uncomfortable because actually I don't believe most of it. I mean, I like the music I'm putting out on the label, but it's not that good. [laughs] Sometimes I just read about it in disbelief, like "Is that really the same music that I just put out?"
What is your metric for what interests you now for Hyperdub? How has it changed?
Not much, really: I just assume the track will have elements of everything I've ever liked about music... [laughs] That's the hardest question to answer.
Would you say you're you highly selective? Do you listen to lots of demos?
We get a lot of demos, and I've had a go at listening to them. It's quite disarming. The release schedule, at least until this summer, is quite packed, so I'm not in a rush to find new music. I'm not just signing for the sake of having new artists.
I find it a very confusing time, actually. There are so many mini micro sub-niche parts of what used to be dubstep or UK underground music, and it feels like everything is in transition. And to be honest, it feels like it's a holding pattern before something else comes. I'm not blown away by much right now. But the metric, I guess it's a combination of gut and brain tingle. I'm probably signing more DJ stuff than I used to, probably because I'm DJing more. But most of the stuff isn't exactly club bangers.
When you speak of a holding pattern or sense of expectancy, do you find that frustrating or exciting?
It's only frustrating in the sense that you always want to be blown away by music, and I'm not. It's just impatience really, greedy impatience: "I want better music now!"
You mentioned in e-mail a schism between styles that are interesting conceptually and interesting sonically. How do you make the distinction?
Kode9 writing/Kode9 music
For me, the book and my music are separate things. There's overlap, but they're not deliberate overlaps. I'm not trying to make people feel uncomfortable with my music. It's not aggressive, or about sonic violence. The way I see it is that I really want my writing about music and making music to go in opposite directions. I like the fact that, from my writing point of view, I don't understand what I'm doing with my music. And I don't get how my music fits into what I've done with my book. As far as I'm concerned, it's a different person for each.
I don't want it to be seen as the same project. I think everybody does
see it that way, but that's not how I think about it. I'm trying to learn how to make better music, and I'm trying to learn how to write better. But it's a question I keep getting asked: how are you using these frequencies you talk about in your own music? Obviously my music is bass-y and all that. I have an interest in bass culture. But sometimes people think because of what they've read in the book, when I'm in the studio I'm doing these frequency calculations and figuring out how to press the right button in the body to incite the right response.
But I'm not like that in the studio; I'm not particularly technical. And the book isn't science like that. The book is an attempt to reclaim thinking about the body and frequencies with a non-scientific worldview. The book lies somewhere between science on the one hand and culture on the other hand. Whereas a lot of people just think words like "warfare" and "frequencies" mean I'm a scientist. That's not true, especially in the studio, when I'm blindly feeling around just trying to string three notes together.
I find a lot of experimental avant-garde music of the last 100 years interesting conceptually, but disappointing when you actually listen for the sound. Then there's a lot of music that is very to-the-point and functional and fun, but doesn't really say anything more than that. I like conceptual theorizing and also very direct music that isn't involved in theorizing.
You've got to find some diagonal between the polarization between the dance floor and sound-art galleries. One way of finding that diagonal is through IDM, but that's just not my diagonal. I don't really like "IDM" as a descriptor, but what it's come to mean has certain sonic threads common to it, and I don't see that as what I'm pursuing at all.
How would you distinguish IDM at this point?
Overly tricky, overly fidgety, twisting its ryhthms, spasticating the rhythms, glitching the rhythms... Also it often has a quite pastoral sense of melody.
Dubstep is currently abstracting and refracting in ways that would seem to be building toward IDM, but there's something different going on that's hard to describe... Would you agree?
Yeah. And I don't necessarily always think that that's a positive process, when it comes to taking something that was quite functional and just fucking around with it, making it more twisted rhythmically. I'm a bit skeptical of that process, just because I've seen it happen before. It happened with jungle, and I still believe that the original form was more interesting and more radical than the "fucked-up" form. Like the relationship between jungle and then all that IDM jungle and breakcore, when it got faster and more convoluted in terms of rhythm. Like Squarepusher... And then that happened a little bit with UK garage, people trying to do clever versions, and it's happening with dubstep too. All I'm trying to say is that sometimes the process of abstraction doesn't necessarily make something more interesting, if what is being abstracted was as powerful, formally, in the first place.
Do you sense in younger producers a more playful sense of messing around with tools and technology? In the past, that impulse has usually been dressed up as sinister and dystopian, whereas now (in post-dubstep stuff and even lots of glo-fi) it has a more benevolent, almost playful connotation. Do you hear this?
That's something I've noticed over the past few years. That kind of dystopian, doom-laden vibe was very strong in dubtep, but it gets wearying when it just becomes a general style instead of an energy. When it becomes a set of techniques and the energy dissipates. So that's what I've noticed: people being just a bit more playful and colorful.
The way Hyperdub changed from about 2006 onwards definitely relates to that, to things being more colored-in, less skeletal, less austere. I'm not sure "joyous" is the right word... I guess it just glows a little more. That's something Burial said about his music, and I think that quite accurately describes it.
Later that evening Steve Goodman stood behind a podium in that institutional room, a little lecture space at New York University, and talked about his new book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. It started out as a project for which he'd decided to "take literally" the ways that electronic-music culture often describes itself, as militant, militaristic, mindful of some kind of imagined battlefield. Beneath all the rhetoric he found some striking echoes in the early development of sound technologies. Tools like the vocoder and even multi-turntable playback devices trace back to military research from first half of the 20th century. (When you have eight minutes free, go watch this, about a so-called Ghost Army unit active during World War II.) Now we have things like little plastic sonic emitters to get rid of bugs and big metal Long Range Acoustic Devices to drive away groups of protesters. Goodman writes about many of them in Sonic Warfare, as well as the ways that different notions of sound stand to alter notions of the space all around us.
What ultimately interested him most, Goodman said, was the way that such devices, developed to disperse crowds, have been repurposed in the service of music culture's goal to consolidate and collectivize. It seemed that here was the critical juncture between Steve Goodman and Kode9, the point where the writer who thinks about musical ideas meets the DJ/producer who puts them into action. Which put me in mind of a passage from our initial e-mail correspondence, which seemed to stream from a bit of both...
The notion of music-as-virus that you've written and talked lots about carries with it a sort of menacing connotation. What is gained by that? What is lost?
It's a way of dramatizing the affect of music, i.e. to be infected by music instead of just being affected by it, to be possessed by it, taken over by it, obsessed or transported into another world, made to feel energized or uneasy. I found this useful in my book because I'm trying to draw attention to a missing dimension in the politics of music that often gets overlooked by the tendency to treat music purely as a language, narrative or musicological, or as something purely consumed for pleasure.
I'm interested in the non-conscious behaviour that music can induce, whether it be in production, dance, feeling, or consumption behaviour. I also think that the old terms that were used to describe music culture and the music industry are a bit outmoded, and I sometimes find the transversal language of viruses more useful than traditional terms like underground and mainstream, pirate and legitimate, pop and alternative, etc.
In terms of what is lost... Well, it should be emphasized that the notion of music as a virus does not have to have a menacing connotation. It is descriptive of a certain mode of propagation and mutation that can be benign or destructive (dependent on perspective). So as long as that is remembered I don't think anything essential is lost.
Do you ever worry that subtext or the narratives we ascribe to music can threaten to overshadow music itself, that the weight of certain ideas can become a distracting or over-burdened focus?
I don't have a general answer to that. You really need to take it on a case-by-case basis. I'm someone who will simultaneously complain at the arbitrary or just plain wrong interpretations superimposed on music by critics in order to make sociological points, or the reduction of music to a set of signifiers, as if music is a language. On the other hand, when music is placed in a consistent or compelling fictional ecology or theoretical system by a musician, their label, or a critic, this can sometimes enhance the enjoyment of music. So I try to be pragmatic about these sorts of things.
In the same way that certain musics work in certain environments, so do certain music-text combinations. Generally, musicians and writers tend to have very different agendas that often conflict. That opposition is a pretty tedious one to me, so I try to ignore it.